Safety Expert Recommends Ways To Reduce Injuries in Pallet Plants
Pallet companies can improve worker safety by developing written training materials, taking pro-active steps in four problem areas, says specialist in occupational safety and health.
By Enterprise Staff
Date Posted: 4/1/2003
Pallet companies can improve worker safety by developing written training materials and taking pro-active steps in four problem areas, according to a specialist in occupational safety and health.
The recommendations were offered by Robert Malkin at the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association Recycling Meeting last fall in Charlotte, N.C. An epidemiologist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert is the director of the instituteís small business intervention project. Unlike OSHA, NIOSH has no enforcement powers and only makes recommendations to industry and businesses.
Robert worked with the pallet industry to improve occupational health and safety. He discussed why organized training programs for workers are necessary and his efforts to identify safety and health hazards in pallet businesses.
Robert had five areas of concern based on the interviews with pallet company managers, owners and workers and visits to pallet businesses. The first was a lack of a written training program at most companies. The second was the safe operation of saws and the generation of sawdust. The third issue was noise levels from operating power nailing tools and other equipment, and the fourth was carbon monoxide emissions from forklift trucks. The fifth area of concern was ergonomic injury resulting from manually lifting pallets.
"I want to make very workable solutions and work as a team" with the pallet industry to implement the recommendations, he said. At the outset of his remarks, he distributed preliminary recommendations along with a return envelope soliciting feedback from members of the audience. "Iím very interested in what you have to say," he said. However, no pallet companies responded, he reported later.
Small businesses have similar safety problems as large companies, Robert noted. Small plants, usually with an owner and 10-15 workers, have no full-time safety director or a plant physician.
The purpose of the small business intervention project is to improve job design and training -- what an owner and employees do and how to do it safely -- and to suggest how equipment may be modified for improved safety. NIOSH also is developing an information network for small business owners, including a Web site.
Many business owners and managers get safety information about machinery and equipment from sales representatives, Robert noted. Machinery manufacturersí sales reps frequently will give advice and provide information on the safe way to operate the equipment supplied by his company.
"How bad is the pallet industry rated?" Robert asked. "There is reason for concern."
Compared to other industries as a whole, the pallet industry has 245% more worker injuries. The annual worker injury rate in the pallet industry is 15.5%, or 6.3 injuries per 100 full-time workers. That amounts to 6,900 injury cases per year for an industry with 39,400 employees, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"What that means," said Robert, "is that each one of you is going to have one workersí compensation case per average, per year. These injuries do occur."
A number of different injuries occur much more frequently in the pallet industry compared to other industries as a whole, Robert noted. For example, the rate of amputations is 1,317% higher than general industry. The rate of cuts and punctures is 818% higher. Other injuries with higher rates than overall industry include fractures (352%), bruises (316%), sprains and strains (194%), and back pain (177%).
In his project with the pallet industry, Robert conducted 15 interviews with managers, owners and workers in 13 different pallet companies. Three of the businesses were pallet recycling companies and the others were pallet manufacturers. No business had more than 20 workers. Robert visited seven plant locations and made three repeat visits with other occupational safety experts.
"How many people have a written training program for workers?" Robert asked the audience of about 50 people; about four or five raised their hands. Having written guidelines that explain the proper, safe way to operate machinery is very helpful, he added, and NIOSH regularly recommends written training information.
Only two of the 14 companies had any kind of manuals for procedures to safely operating machinery. "Most training is word of mouth or hands-on," said Robert. One employee tells another how to operate a saw or nailing tool. All the pallet company managers and workers who were interviewed mentioned the need for training, according to Robert, and agreed it would be helpful.
The interviews uncovered additional problems or areas of concern. Shop owners were not aware of safety issues in the pallet industry or had incorrect information about them; in any case, there was a lack of training. Each pallet company varied significantly from another in the type of saws it used, operating procedures, and the level of automated equipment throughout the plant. Many saws were custom-built by the owner, for example, and most pallet companies did not have automated nailing machines. Because of the wide variation, NIOSH did not develop a specific training program that would be applicable to the entire pallet industry; instead, it developed more general recommendations.
With respect to saw safety, many accidents occur as a result of guards that have been removed from saws, said Robert. This is especially true in plants where workers running saws are paid a piece rate, he added; in such cases, guards often are removed because they tend to slow down the operator.
Saw-related accidents also occur then workers mistakenly believe that the blade is no longer rotating. Once a circular saw has been turned off, for example, the blade continues to rotate. A worker may see the machine has been turned off and assumes the blade has come to a complete stop when in fact it has not. Workers who wear gloves while operating a saw may get a glove caught in the blade, resulting in amputated fingers or hand.
Visits to pallet companies also revealed dusty conditions because of a lack of adequate ventilation and poor housekeeping practices, according to Robert. For example, sawdust may be left to accumulate on the floor, and it is stirred up into the atmosphere as a forklift travels over it. Companies that did not operate resaws had noticeably less dust than those that did, he added.
Even the task of assembling pallets with a power nailing tool contributes to the dust problem, he pointed out. Nailing tools operate with compressed air, and they exhaust compressed air as part of the nailing process. The exhausted compressed air may blow sawdust on pallet components, stirring it up into the atmosphere.
Equipment is available to remove sawdust from newly cut pallet lumber and to collect and remove sawdust generated at saws, but some pallet companies do not have it because of the cost, Robert noted.
Dust may still be a problem despite sophisticated dust removal systems, he noted. One company had a sawdust collection system that emptied into a dumpster, and the sawdust accumulated into a pyramid-like pile. When the pile reached a certain height, a worker climbed into the dumpster to knock it down with a stick. He wore no respiratory or skin protective devices, and the process of knocking down the pile stirred up dust into the atmostphere.
Power nailing tools generate considerable noise, said Robert. The noise accompanies the hammering cycle and the exhaust cycle. The level of noise is nearly identical, he said, although the noise caused by hammering is slightly higher. In visits to pallet plants, the noise level of power nailing tools was measured at 113 decibels; the OSHA standard for an eight-hour day is 90 decibels. "One hundred and thirteen is substantially noisier than 90," said Robert. "Itís pretty noisy."
Ear plugs are usually given to workers, but no pallet plants provided instructions how to use them. Robert observed many workers who had put plugs loosely into the ear instead of inserting them fully into the ear canal.
Ear plugs typically are rated to reduce noise level by about 30 decibels, but the ratings may not be accurate, according to Robert. "Between you and I, that 30 is a best estimate." Research has shown that ear plugs rated to reduce noise levels by 30 decibels actually only reduce them by about 15 decibels, he said.
Many different machines and pieces of equipment may be operating simultaneously and generating noise, he noted -- saws, nailing tools, air compressor, forklifts, and so on.
More importantly, no pallet company knew what the noise levels were in work areas. "How can you possibly pick a personal protective device, like an ear plug, if you donít know what youíre protecting against?"
Forklift engines have five main sources of fuel: electric batteries, liquid propane gas (LPG), compressed natural gas, gasoline or diesel. Gasoline engines emit the highest volume of carbon monoxide, and Robert observed many of them operating in pallet companies. Many pallet plant managers and owners erroneously believed that propane-fueled forklift trucks do not emit carbon monoxide. "This is not true," said Robert. Forklifts powered by LPG, if not properly maintained, can emit as much carbon monoxide as a gasoline-powered version.
Carbon monoxide emissions are aggravated in winter months, especially in cold climate regions, because plants typically keep their doors shut to conserve heat; natural draft and ventilation is reduced, and carbon monoxide levels can build up. Mechanical ventilation systems should be used in such conditions, Robert recommended.
Carbon monoxide poisoning may cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue and sleepiness. These in turn may lead to poor judgment and injuries. "The injuries you have at a site may not be due to the saw or nailing tool," said Robert. "It may be due to the fact that a personís judgment is impaired by carbon monoxide." Unchecked, carbon monoxide poisoning may also cause nausea, vomiting, fluttering or throbbing of the heart, unconsciousness, and death. In some case, victims do not exhibit any of the early symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness; high levels of carbon monoxide may result in loss of consciousness and later death -- without indication of any other symptoms.
Many pallet companies assemble or repair pallets by hand with power nailing tools, Robert noted. They are involved in lifting pallets, turning them over, and stacking them. One visit to a pallet plant, Robert witnessed a worker pick up a finished pallet and throw it onto a stack. "Thatís not a good idea," he said. He saw workers lifting pallets that weighed an estimated 75 pounds in order to stack them by hand; NIOSH recommends workers lift objects weighing no more than 40-50 pounds.
Some workers used buckets stacked on top of each other to create a platform to place the nailing tool when it was not in use. The stack can easily be adjusted according to the height of the worker. It was a simple yet effective aid.
Nevertheless, workers assembling pallets frequently do a lot of reaching at armís length with the nailing tool, which may weigh 15 pounds or more.
Robertís recommendations included reinforcing the need for proper guards on saws. "The guard has to be on the saw," he said. In addition, saws should not be left unattended while the blade is still rotating; the worker operating the saw should remain at the machine until the blade comes to a stop in order to prevent someone from inadvertently coming into contact with the moving blade. He also suggested isolating the saw with a screen or grate.
Appropriate respiratory protection when working around dust, said Robert. He also advised the use of solid pipes -- free of leaks -- for exhausting sawdust. Many companies rely on a patchwork system of flexible hoses connected by duct tape and tied to a saw.
Saws should not be operated when exhaust systems are turned off, he said.
Companies should have complete, clear, written operations and training materials to make clear to workers their required duties. Proper training should not rely on one worker telling the instructions to another; the trainer may forget certain details. Another reason not to rely on verbal instructions: the worker doing the training may become sick or quit.
Determine noise levels in the plant (take noise readings) and ensure that workers are correctly using ear plugs. Ear muffs provide better protection against noise, although workers do not like them because they are big and also hot in the summer, Robert acknowledged.
Companies also should conduct tests of forklifts to determine carbon monoxide levels on a regular basis, Robert suggested. The tests may reveal the need to tune an engine, which would reduce fuel costs. He also recommended the use of electric forklifts to reduce carbon monoxide levels. Plants should have adequate mechanical ventilation systems in the winter, he said.
"There are three things to remember about lifting," he said. "Do not lift material off the floor; you donít want to bend and lift it up. Do not hold material out from your body when lifting. Do not twist your body when lifting material Ė which you do in the pallet industry all the time...Thatís bad. That can result in injury."
Workers should not use power nailing tools for long periods of time. Holding the nailing tool at armís length repeatedly can injure the shoulder, arm, elbow and hand. Workers frequently Ďbounceí the nail gun when it make a hammer cycle to help lift it and move it to the next place, he noted, but this technique aggravates stress to the worker. Workers assembling or repairing pallets should have adjustable tables that allow them to slide the pallet from one surface to another without lifting.Page 1 Page 2
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